Matt’s humour isn’t lost in translation

Pictured from left Matt Burney, British Council Area Director for East China, Gordon Young and Martin Davidson (Chief Executive of the British Council)
Pictured from left Matt Burney, British Council Area Director for East China, Gordon Young and Martin Davidson (Chief Executive of the British Council)
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T oday Blackpool, tomorrow the world. Ask the Chinese. As they say – a billion Chinese can’t be wrong.

Our own Comedy Carpet has taken the magic carpet ride in vinyl print form from the British seaside to Shanghai on the coast of eastern China.

City slickers now study such northern comedic phrases as “knickers, knackers, knockers” and “she knows, you know” in Shanghai’s biggest ever design show, Aesthetics Today, until March.

Meantime, a new book commemorating the iconic carpet went on sale on Friday after a special launch event featuring Blackpool Council leader Simon Blackburn and the artist Gordon Young.

All of which delights a high ranking resort-born cultural attache and diplomat now working in China.

Matt Burney, 43, heads home to see his mum Mary, of North Shore, for Christmas, and his brother in Kendal , before visiting London.

Matt is the area director for East China for the British Council – and one of the mandarins who organised the Prime Minister’s recent three-day £6bn trade snaring visit to China.

Matt learned the carpet was to feature in China’s version of the Tate Modern – the Power Station of Art in Shanghai.

It takes the form of a large scale vinyl print with two videos and granite letters in the City of Interface section of the 2013 Design Shanghai show. 
He admits: “I was delighted. It’s from a place called Blackpool, I was told. ‘I’m from Blackpool’, I said. The Comedy Carpet had won a prestigious design prize in Tokyo and the Chinese contingent saw it there and liked it.”

Matt reckons the humour may be lost in translation.

“The Chinese like slapstick – Mr Bean is popular here. They like the concept of the Comedy Carpet – humour tends to be culturally specific and for 99 per cent of Chinese viewers the humour will be lost in translation.”

Sandgrown’un diplomat Matt is one of the sharpest tools in the box – a stand up guy who fights our corner abroad.

Matt assisted in organising the PM’s visit to China earlier this month. “It included 150 delegates and eight ministers. I scoped out what might be of interest to them.”

Originally he planned on taking Maria Miller, secretary of state for culture, to see the Comedy Carpet in Shanghai.

“In a last minute change I took our own chief executive of the British Council – Martin Davidson – to see Gordon Young’s smaller version of the carpet and meet the man himself.

“The Power Station of Art has a very high profile and it’s a great platform to promote Blackpool too.

“Gordon Young is passionate and very positive about Blackpool.”

Matt’s the same. He attended Westcliff Primary School and Montgomery High School in Bispham before going to Collegiate High , Layton, for his A levels.

“At 14 I got a scholarship to the Royal Northern College of Music - doing clarinet and piano.”

He spent five years at the college but admits: “I got a bit fed up with being surrounded by musicians all the time.”

He applied to Oxford to study musicology and did a postgraduate performance diploma at the Royal College of Music.

Then came the break which changed his life.

“I needed some money so applied to a Japanese exchange and teaching programme run by the Ministry for Education in Japan. It was a fantastic opportunity to experience a new culture and be paid for the privilege.

“The one year ended up being eight years.

“I got my Masters in Japan and a job in international relations and started working for the British Council in central Japan promoting UK higher education in 1997.

“Just before 2000 I was asked to go down the diplomacy route as an opening had come in China in Chongqing, the world’s largest city, with 32m people, and part of Szechuan province.

“I set up our fourth mainland operation there, and did that for three years.”

Matt then moved to headquarters in London looking after Burma, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan.

“It’s hard work. You have to be comfortable with ambiguity, flexible, nimble, and wary of bringing your own values to a particular operational context.

“I am used to it now but when I first started it all felt incredibly exciting .

“Now my life is characterised by packing and unpacking boxes and moving on – it’s the nature of the beast.

“Yet I still have anxiety dreams about rehearsals for music so had a lucky escape.”

He says he was encouraged to go to Oxford by Collegiate’s classics teacher “Mr Slater.”

Matt’s application was initially declined. “My heart wasn’t in it so I hadn’t prepared for it properly. The tutors thought I was interested in music conservatories than universities.

“It was only when I re-applied, and convinced them I was more interested in going down an academic route, I was accepted.”

Matt is area director of east China for the British Council, which creates international opportunities for the people of the UK and other countries and builds trust between them worldwide, and is also cultural and educational consul for the British Consulate General.

“Blackpool remains home. “I love coming home, and get back whenever I can. My dad passed away in September so I want to be with my mum.”

“I’m also interested in the way Blackpool Council is exploring Chinese business links.

“There’s a massive opportunity in Blackpool in ballroom dancing – that’s a massive hobby here in China. It’s a massive market potentially for Blackpool to tap into.

“I also promote the UK as a study destination. More than 100,000 Chinese students study in the UK at the moment- there’s scope for many more.”

But has the campaign been set back by the UK’s recent low scores in an international educational study which shows the Brits lagging behind China and Japan.”

“ The PM’s visit aimed to create more opportunities for British people and for young people to come over to China and study here.”

Matt still misses some of the home comforts.

“I have a Chinese partner so whenever we come back to Blackpool we go to the Chinese cash and carry.

“But the funny thing is I actually miss Chinese takeaways, Blackpool style, as the food here in Shanghai is authentic, not all that lovely gloopy MSG stuff. And I miss proper fish and chips - and chips with gravy.”